New Study: Ice Sheet Retreat Led to Rapid Methane Hydrate Release at End of Last Ice Age

Andreassen et al. found evidence of large craters embedded within methane-leaking subglacial sediments in the Barents Sea, Norway. They propose that the thinning of the ice sheet at the end of recent glacial cycles decreased the pressure on pockets of hydrates buried in the seafloor, resulting in explosive blow-outs. This created the giant craters and released large quantities of methane into the water above. — Science

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At the end of the last ice age, a warming world released a portion of its carbon stores into the atmosphere. The result was, ultimately, an increase in atmospheric CO2 by around 100 parts per million and in increase in atmospheric methane by around 300 parts per billion.

This increase in greenhouse gasses was a direct response to the Earth warming by approximately 4 degrees Celsius over the course of about 10,000 years. Under a present human-forced warming that is currently 1.2 C above late 19th Century averages and that is predicted to reach between 3.3 and 7 C warming this Century if fossil fuel burning continues, it is important to consider what additional carbon forcing the Earth System will produce under such an extreme and short-term temperature departure.

A new study recently published in Science indicates that these massive craters in the sea bed off Svalbard formed as methane hydrate erupted from the sea bed when ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age. Many of these craters are over a kilometer wide. Image source: K. Andreassen/CAGE.

One subject of concern is the behavior of methane hydrate deposits under warming conditions. It is estimated that upward of trillions of tons of hydrate exist in various frozen deposits around the world. And that even a fractional release from these deposits could contribute to the increasing greenhouse gas overburden in our atmosphere and further exacerbate warming. A potential for such a release in the short term would add risk of increased warming this Century on top of planned emissions from human fossil fuel burning — adding urgency to already necessary rapid emissions cuts (and a related swift transition to renewable energy based economies).

Paleoclimate Evidence of Massive Hydrate Release

This past week, a new study entitled — Massive blow-out craters formed by hydrate-controlled methane expulsion from the Arctic seafloor — lends credence to concerns regarding hydrate release as a potential amplifier to human warming. The study found that as ice sheets retreated and as pressure was relieved from the sea floor near Svalbard 12,000 years ago, pockets of methane hydrate rapidly migrated toward the surface as they turned to gas. This newly gasified methane formed large, high-pressure, mounds on the sea floor. Such mounds were unstable. Sensitive to changes in the local environment, they generated explosive outbursts which released considerable volumes of methane into the ocean and ultimately also added heat-trapping carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere.

The lead author of the study, Karin Andreasson, a professor at the CAGE Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate noted in Phys.org last week that:

As [the] climate warmed, and the ice sheet collapsed, enormous amounts of methane were abruptly released. This created massive craters that are still actively seeping methane.

Though the methane craters formed off Svalbard around 12,000 years ago as the ice sheet retreated, they are linked to deeper methane pockets and are still leaking gas into the ocean today. Image source: Andreia Plaza Faverola/CAGE.

The researchers characterized these blow-out mounds as similar to those that have recently been forming in the Russian permafrost in places like Yamal and Yakutia. And their research indicates that a process like the one that occurred off Svalbard at the end of the last ice age may be at play as permafrost thins and as gas beneath this cap of frozen soil more rapidly migrates toward the surface — creating unstable blow-out mounds. Researchers also indicated that places presently locked in surface ice — like Greenland and Antarctica — could generate further methane blow out risk as ice sheets melt, withdraw and remove pressure from the methane deposits beneath them.

Conditions in Context

These are important findings due to the fact that paleoclimate evidence of past large-scale hydrate release provides a study-identified mechanism for how permafrost hydrates and gas deposits are being liberated due to present warming, how such warming may increase their rate of liberation in the future, and how ice sheet withdrawal could contribute to this hydrate liberation trend. What remains highly uncertain is the ultimate volume of hydrate response to a given level of warming over a given period and how significantly such releases would contribute to the already very considerable heat forcing provided by human emissions. That said, the new study does add to serious concerns regarding the potential for future warming and greenhouse gas levels — which will tend to be higher than present model studies indicate due to generally not accounting for these kinds of Earth System carbon feedbacks.

Links:

Massive blow-out craters formed by hydrate-controlled methane expulsion from the Arctic seafloor

Massive Craters Formed by Methane Blow-outs on Arctic Sea Floor

Massive Craters From Methane Explosions Found in Arctic

Paleoclimate Record of Atmospheric Greenhouse Gasses

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

2 C Coming On Faster Than We Feared — Atmospheric Methane Spikes to Record 3096 Parts Per Billion

It’s essential that policymakers begin to seriously consider the possibility of a substantial permafrost carbon feedback to global warming. If they don’t, I suspect that down the road we’ll all be looking at the 2°C threshold in our rear-view mirror.Robert Max Holmes

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Unraveling the global warming puzzle is simple at its face, complex when you pierce the surface.

We know that burning fossil fuels, that the activity of mining coal, fracking for gas, and drilling for oil all result in dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. We know that the vast majority of these warming gasses are coming from fossil fuel based sources. We know that, now, the burning and mining and fracking and drilling have pushed atmospheric CO2 above 405 parts per million and the global concentration of all CO2 equivalent gasses to an amazing 485 parts per million CO2e (levels not seen in at least 15 million years). And we know that the heat re-radiated by these gasses has warmed the world by about 1 C above 1880s levels — forcing weather patterns to change, seas to rise, ocean health to decline, and setting off a wave of die offs in the animal world while increasing the near-term risk of hunger, spreading tropical disease, and mass displacement in the human world.

Radiative Forcing

(Heat added to the Earth’s atmosphere by fossil fuel emitted gasses like CO2 and Methane are measured in watts per meter squared. A yardstick known as radiative forcing [RF]. In the above graph by IPCC, we can see the estimated levels of radiative forcing from each greenhouse gas and total net human heat forcing upon the Earth atmosphere as of 2011. It’s a measure that may also need to start adding in the RF of feedback greenhouse gasses as the 21st Century progresses. Image source: RealClimate.)

We know many of the names of these other gasses — methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbon. And some of the others — like sulfur hexaflouride — many of us haven’t yet heard of. But the big name, the primary warming agent, is carbon dioxide — responsible on its own for the majority of the overall heat forcing currently. A gas so important to long term warming that NASA has called it ‘the thermostat that controls Earth’s temperature.’

All this is pretty simple and straightforward. But it’s when we start looking at what are called amplifying feedbacks — the Earth System Sensitivity responses to human forced warming — that things really start to get dicey. And wrapped up in the Earth System Sensitivity equation is methane — a greenhouse gas with the ability to strongly influence global temperatures over rather short time-frames.

Methane Spikes to Over 3,000 parts per Billion

On February 20th, for about 12 hours, the NOAA METOP measure recorded a major atmospheric methane spike in the range of 3,096 parts per billion at 20,000 feet in altitude. This was the first time that any measure had recorded such a high methane spike and the first time any measure had exceeded the 3,000 parts per billion threshold. For context, just two years ago, a methane spike in the range of 2,660 parts per billion would have been significant. Now, we’re getting peak readings that are more than 400 parts per billion higher than that previous maximum threshold.

Metop methane

(METOP showed a record 3,096 parts per billion atmospheric methane spike on February 20 of 2016. Thus far, this was the largest such spike ever recorded in the NOAA measure. One that far exceeded a global atmospheric average of around 1830 parts per billion. Image source: NOAA/METOP.)

It’s a pretty ominous signal — especially when you consider the fact that global atmospheric methane averages are in the range of 1830 parts per billion. The recent major spike was about 1170 parts per billion higher. In other words — a pretty extraordinary excession. It’s evidence that the methane sources of the world are growing more vigorous in their output. And when you consider the fact that methane — on a molecule-by-molecule comparison to CO2 — traps about 80 times more heat over the decadal timescale, large additions of methane on top of an already dangerous CO2 forcing is certainly cause for some concern. An issue that may further speed the already rapid pace of human-forced warming such that we become at risk of hitting the 1.5 C and 2 C thresholds sooner than expected. Outcomes we should urgently be working to avoid — by cutting the human-based emission as rapidly as possible at this time.

The Usual Suspects — Fossil Fuel Based Activity

Perhaps still more concerning is the fact that we really don’t know exactly where this significant methane spike is coming from.

We do, however, have a long list of usual suspects. The first, of course, would be from any number of very large and dangerous fossil fuel emission sources. China, with its massive methane belching coal mines, gas infrastructure, and dirty coal burning facilities would be a prime suspect. Mongolia, where equally sprawling coal and gas facilities operate is another likely hot spot. Russia — with its vast and leaky oil and gas fields. The Middle East — which is choked with fossil fuel infrastructure. Europe — where many of Russia’s pipelines terminate and where many nations burn a high-methane brown coal. And the United States — where the geologically destructive practice of fracking has now also recently and greatly increased methane emissions.

Unusual Suspects — Permafrost and Clathrate Warmed by Fossil Fuel Emissions

Looking at the very low resolution METOP graphic above, we find a number of methane hot spots around the globe. And many of these hot spots do coincide with our usual suspects list. But others are well outside the range we would typically expect. Far up in the north. Over the tundra and the Arctic Ocean where few major fossil fuel burning or extraction facilities now exist. There, somewhat ironically, great piles of permafrost spreading over millions of square miles and sometimes mounding up as thick as two miles are thawing due a greenhouse gas heat forcing from fossil fuel burning often happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. This thawing permafrost is filled with organic material. And when freed of its icy prison it is exposed to the world’s elements and microbes. These forces then go to work turning the organic carbon in that permafrost into carbon dioxide and methane.

This is rather bad news. In total, more than 1,300 billion tons of carbon are locked away in the permafrost soils. And carbon emissions from permafrost make an already bad heat forcing coming from fossil fuel burning even worse.

Barrow methane

(Atmospheric methane levels as recorded by various reporting stations and global monitors have been rising more rapidly during recent years. In the Arctic, atmospheric readings have tended to remain above the global average — an indication that local emissions are generating an overburden for the region. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

But if all the human emissions and potential permafrost emissions weren’t bad enough, we have one more major carbon source in the Arctic to consider — methane hydrate. A controversial potential methane release source to be certain. But a very large one that we would be remiss to ignore. Due to the fact that the Arctic has remained very cold overall for the past 3 million years of long ice ages and brief interglacials, this massive store of carbon has been given the opportunity to build up within the relatively shallow and now swiftly warming Arctic Ocean waters and even beneath large sections of now-thawing permafrost. Much of this carbon is in the form of the frozen ice-methane called hydrate. And as the Arctic Ocean warms and sea ice recedes to expose blue ocean to the heating of the sun’s rays for the first time in hundreds of thousands of years, there is concern among some scientists that a not insignificant amount of that submerged frozen methane will release, pass the ocean-atmosphere or thawing permafrost boundary, and add more heat forcing to the world’s atmosphere. The shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf has been identified by some to contain as much as 500 billion tons of carbon in the form of frozen methane. And a fossil fueled heating of the Earth may be just now risking amplifying feedback level releases from this large clathrate store along with a number of other very large stores scattered all across the Arctic Ocean basin and on throughout the global ocean system.

A Clearer Picture? Or One Far More Complex?

So who among all the various suspects — usual and unusual — may be responsible for the record methane spike now showing up in the METOP measure?

Before we attempt to answer this question, let’s pull in another methane graphic — this one from the Copernicus Observatory:

Global Surface Methane Readings Copernicus

(The February 25 Copenicus methane graphic tracking surface methane readings gives a higher resolution indication of surface methane readings than the NOAA METOP measure. This second measure provides some confirmation of an Arctic methane overburden even as spike sources from human emissions become more readily apparent. Omnious spikes also apparently come from wildfires in the tropics and from regions in the Arctic near Yamal, Russia, Northern Scandinavia, the Barents and Kara seas. Image source: The Copernicus Observatory.)

Here we can see the range of surface methane readings according to Copernicus. A higher resolution image that may provide us with a better idea of the point-source location for daily global methane spikes. Here we see that the major methane sources are predominantly China, Russia, the Middle East, Europe, the United States, India, Indonesia, Fires in Africa and the Amazon, and, finally, the Arctic.

Though the Copernicus measure doesn’t show the same level of Arctic overburden as what has tended to show up in the METOP measure, it’s a confirmation that something in the near Arctic environment is generating local spikes in above 1940 parts per billion for large regions of this sensitive zone.

The Copernicus measure, as noted above, also shows that the human spikes are quite intense, remaining the dominant source of methane emissions globally despite a continued disturbing overburden in the Arctic. Spikes in Africa, the Amazon, and Indonesia also indicate that declining rain forests and related fires in these tropical zones are also probably providing an amplifying feedback to the overall human emission.

Given this month’s spikes and the overall disposition of surface methane readings around the globe, it does appear that the large human base methane emission is being enhanced by feedbacks from local emissions from carbon stores both in the tropics and in the Arctic. This enhancement signal, though somewhat smaller than the fossil fuel related signal in some measures, is concerning and hints that Robert Max Holmes’ warning at the top may be all-too-relevant. For Earth System feedbacks to massive and irresponsible fossil fuel emissions appear to already be starting to complicate our picture of a warming Earth.

Links:

CO2: The Thermostat That Controls Earth’s Temperature

Ominous Arctic Methane Spike Continues

Huge Methane Spike Coming from US Fracking

Methane Release From Frozen Permafrost Could Trigger Dangerous Global Warming

Concern over Catastrophic Methane Release

A4R Global Methane Tracking

The Copernicus Observatory

NOAA ESRL

RealClimate

NOAA/METOP

Hat Tip to Griffin

The Ominous Greenhouse Gas Accumulation Continues: Peak Methane Approaches 3,000 Parts Per Billion as CO2 Growth Rate Jumps Higher

The world finally appears like it’s slowly starting to wake up from the grips of a fossil fuel influence-induced fever dream. Slowly, despite endemic political meddling by these powerful entities, some changes are starting to happen. Global carbon emissions growth remained flat during 2014 and likely 2015. Renewable energy adoption ramped up. Some major international commitments to reducing global carbon emissions were made.

But the very pertinent question must be asked — are we waking up fast enough? And the still rapidly growing concentrations of gasses that heat the Earth’s atmosphere would seem to supply the answer in the form of a resounding, thunderous — “NO!”

Another Troubling Methane Spike

On January 8th of 2016, we saw another record methane reading for the global atmosphere. The most recent single point peak for NOAA’s METOP measure hit a new all-time atmospheric high of 2,963 parts per billion or just 37 parts per billion shy of the milestone 3,000 parts per billion threshold.

Peak Atmospheric Methane Levels Approach 3,000 Parts Per Billion

(Another record methane spike rockets its way toward the ominous 3,000 parts per billion milestone in the NOAA METOP satellite array. The location of the current spike appears to be in the region of the Arctic where a number of very large carbon stores are now starting to warm up. Image source: NOAA OSPO.)

As has been typical of this particular sensor array, peak methane readings appear directly over the upper Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere — hinting that this particular spike may have been generated by some Arctic amplifying feedback related carbon source. It’s also worth noting that the array continues to pick up the overall methane overburden pattern centered atop the Arctic. A troubling overburden that has showed up in a number of sensor arrays over recent years and has been one key bit of evidence pointing toward a potential new trend of amplifying carbon feedbacks in the Arctic.

Atmospheric Methane Averages Continue Measured Upward Trend

In the broader context, we continue to see rising average global methane concentrations after a pause in atmospheric increases during the 1990s through the mid 2000s. This rate of increase is a sign that either new human sources, new global feedbacks from methane sources, or a combination of the two are pushing global totals higher. It is worth noting that the lower Latitude measures like Mauna Loa, however, did not pick up a signal that some kind of major-to-catastrophic environmental methane emission was underway. A situation some observational scientists fear may be possible, but that other, more well-established specialists tend to consider far, far less likely. Regardless of the current scientific conjecture, heightened and rising methane readings in the Arctic remain rather troubling.

To these points, methane readings at Mauna Loa by end of 2015 had hit a range of around 1855 parts per billion even as peak atmospheric averages for the year had hit around 1840 parts per billion. Continuing a general trend of rapid atmospheric methane accumulation of about 7-8 parts per billion per year that started in 2008.

Mauna Loa Methane

(Significant rates of atmospheric methane increase that began during 2008 continue in the ESRL/Mauna Loa measure. Though these rates of increase are troubling, they do not at this time indicate that a major or catastrophic release from the global environment has taken place. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Next to CO2, methane generates the second strongest atmospheric heat forcing. Its accumulation in the Earth’s atmosphere since the beginning of major industrialization at the end of the 19th Century has primarily been driven by a number of human sources — chiefly through the activities of coal, oil and gas extraction, industrial agriculture (meat farming), and waste accumulating in landfills. During recent years, there has been some signal that global wetlands — including the thawing permafrost zones of the world — are also starting to contribute to the overall methane load as the world warms up and the carbon cycle starts kicking into higher gear.

Rates of Atmospheric CO2 Accumulation are Also Ramping Higher with El Nino

To this point, rates of atmospheric CO2 accumulation (the primary heat trapping gas in the atmosphere) also appear to be ramping higher coincident with the influence of a monster El Nino now taking place in the Pacific acting together with global greenhouse gas emissions from human fossil fuel burning that remain near all-time record highs. As large regions of the global ocean warm, the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink becomes inhibited. In more extreme cases, where the sea surface temperatures of an ocean that’s already saturated with human-emitted carbon become too warm, then CO2 starts to vent back into the atmosphere. And with what is possibly the strongest El Nino on record occurring coincident with a period of massive fossil fuel based carbon emissions, impacts to the rate of atmospheric CO2 accumulation can become quite dramatic.

It’s for this reason that El Nino years in the context of massive, human-based burning can see spiking global CO2 readings. And it appears that just such an event may now be underway.

Mauna Loa 3 ppm CO2 increase december to december

(Atmospheric CO2 levels pushing rapidly above 400 parts per million is the ugly legacy of human-based fossil fuel burning. Most recent two-year section of the Keeling Curve shows a substantial accumulation of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere that is well above the current and already very rapid average annual accumulation of 2.2 parts per million each year. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

According observations taken by Dr Ralph Keeling and fellow researchers at the Mauna Loa Observatory, atmospheric CO2 concentrations jumped by more than 3 parts per million from December of 2014 through December of 2015. This jump in concentration is pretty far in excess of average annual rates of increase in the range of 2.2 parts per million CO2 each year that have been ongoing since the early-to-mid 2000s.

With El Nino still ongoing, we should continue to see such ocean-warming related impacts on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue into 2016. Impacts that may be further enhanced as another strong westerly wind burst along the Equatorial Pacific will likely serve to reinvigorate the current El Nino — making its already substantial influence more long-lasting.

Links:

NOAA OSPO

NOAA ESRL

The Keeling Curve

CO2: The Principle Control Nob Governing Earth’s Temperature

A4R Global Methane Tracking

Hat Tip to mlparrish

Hat Tip to islandraider

 

 

Peak Methane Spike to 2845 Parts Per Billion on April 25, 2015 is Just Uncanny

If you look at the annual methane fluctuations in the Arctic — the region where peak global values tend to crop up — highest readings typically occur during the September-through-October time-frame and then again in January.

Over the past few years, peak values have ranged as high as 2600 parts per billion during the fall of 2014 and then again during January of 2015. Typically, peak values then subside as Northern Hemisphere Winter locks in most of the emitting High Latitude sources and we wait for the Autumn and early Winter overburdens to again emerge. So those of us who keep track of methane kinda just sat tight, expecting at least a somewhat calm spring, and waited for the new peak values that would be most likely to pop up by late this year and early next.

But then, on Saturday, this popped up in the NOAA METOP measure:

Major Methane Spike April 25 2015

(NOAA METOP methane measure finds peak values as high as 2845 parts per billion. An extraordinarily high reading, especially for April. Image source: NOAA OPSO.)

A whopping peak value of 2845 parts per billion at the 14,000 foot level of the atmosphere where methane concentrations tend to top out — especially in higher level clouds that have tended to be associated with Arctic wildfires. A value more than 200 parts per billion higher than daily peaks during January of 2015. All-in-all, a huge and unexpected jump at a very odd time for it.

If we look at the above map we find that most of the peak values are in the region of Russia. With many peak values in areas where major wildfires have been ongoing (Lake Baikal region, Khakassia), where wildfires were just starting to flare up (Northern Ukraine), or above other recently thawing permafrost zones. We also find decent spikes over China, Europe, Iceland, spots of the High Arctic, Canada and Alaska, Central Africa, The Indian Ocean, and over Antarctica.

Daily Mean Values Pop as Well

Sam Carana over at Arctic News caught the spike earlier this week and provided this very informative graph cataloging 14,000 to 18,000 foot methane levels for 2015:

Daily Methane Highest Mean 2015

(Daily mean and peak values provided by Sam Carana show how much of an outlier the April 25 spike is. Image source: Arctic News.)

And what we find, from looking at the graph, is that not only did peak values spike to an extraordinary high level in late April, but mean values also took a big jump — rising from 1807 ppb on January 10 to a peak of 1829 ppb on April 22nd. A 12 parts per billion bump in the entire global measure over a four month period (average annual rates of increase have been in the range of 7 parts per billion each year recently). A raging pace of increase 5 times faster than the annual trend.

It’s worth noting that daily peak and mean values do tend to swing back and forth quite vigorously. As an example, a peak mean value of 1839 ppb was recorded on September 7 of 2014. But, as noted above, these are extraordinarily abnormal high values for April. A quite unsettling methane spike at a very odd time of year and happening on dates and over locations that may suggest permafrost zone fire involvement.

Conditions in Context

For context, methane is an extraordinarily powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential about 30-40 times that of CO2 over meaningful timescales. Global atmospheric averages for methane have jumped from around 725 parts per billion during the 18th Century to above 1820 parts per billion now. A major scientific controversy is now ongoing over the issue of how rapidly global carbon stores will respond to an extraordinary pace of human warming — with some observational specialists raising the possibility of a very large methane contribution from now activating carbon stores in the Arctic.

Links:

NOAA OPSO

Methane Levels as High as 2845 Parts Per Billion

Concern Over Catastrophic Methane Release — Overburden, Plumes, Eruptions, and Large Ocean Craters

The amount of methane in the Arctic hydrates alone is estimated as 400 times more than the global atmospheric CH4 burden. The question is timescale of the methane liberation: gradual, abrupt, or something in between. Satellite monitoring of methane over the Arctic Ocean is necessary. — Dr. Leonid Yerganov

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Depending on who you listen to, it’s the end of the world, or it isn’t. A loud and lively debate that springs up in the media every time a new sign of potential methane instability or apparent increasing emission from methane stores is reported by Arctic observational science.

On one side of this debate are those declaring the apocalypse is nigh due to, what they think, is an inevitable catastrophic methane release driven by an unprecedentedly rapid human warming of the Arctic. A release large enough to wipe out global human civilization. These doomsayers are fueled by a number of scientists (usually Arctic observational specialists) who continue to express concern — due to an increasing number of troubling, if not yet catastrophic, rumblings coming from the Arctic carbon store. The Arctic is warming faster than it ever has, they accurately note. And this very rapid rate of warming is putting unprecedented and dangerous stresses on carbon stores, including methane, that have lain dormant for many millions of years. The risk of catastrophic release, therefore, is high enough to sound the alarm.

On the other side are a number of mainstream news outlets backed up by a group of established scientists. This group claims that there’s generally no reason to worry about a methane apocalypse. The methane releases so far are relatively small (on the global scale) and there are all sorts of reasons why future releases will be moderate, slow in coming, and non-catastrophic. The methane store most pointed toward by methane catastrophists — a frozen water methane known as hydrate — tends to self-regulate release, in most cases, acting as a kind of pressure valve that would tend to moderate emission rates and prevent instances of catastrophic eruption (Please see The Long Thaw).

A third group appears to have somewhat sidestepped an otherwise polarized discourse. Outlets like ThinkProgress and others have continued to quietly report observations without drawing conclusions, one way or the other, on the issue of near term methane apocalypse. They point, instead, to what are, admittedly, some rather odd and scary methane rumblings going on near the pole. Among this ‘middle ground’ group are a survey of about 100 researchers who’ve identified a likely carbon release (including both methane and CO2) from the Arctic equaling between 10 and 35 percent of the human emission by the end of this Century (Please see High Risk of Permafrost Thaw). It is a ‘middle ground’ that is troubling enough. For 10-35 percent of the human carbon emission coming from the Arctic is a massive release in the range of 1 to 3.5 gigatons of carbon (with a fraction as volatile methane). If such an emission does materialize, it will equal (on the low end) or exceed the annual rate of environmental carbon release last seen during the PETM — a hothouse extinction 55 million years ago that turned the oceans into killers and forced life on land to shrink in size and burrow to avoid the awful heat and stifling atmosphere of that age.

Regardless of where you stand in this discourse, the Arctic itself continues to provide cause for both debate and appropriate concern.

Methane Overburden

Barrow Methane

(Barrow surface methane observations by NOAA ESRL show methane readings that range about 60 ppb above the global average. Note the 50 ppb increase over the past decade coincident with numerous ‘outlier’ spikes [green cross hatches] from local sources. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

Perhaps the most obvious sign that there’s something not quite right going on in the Arctic is a large overburden of both methane and CO2 in the region. Looking at NOAA’s ESRL site, we find that methane levels at Barrow, Alaska (one of just a handful of Arctic sensor stations in the ESRL network) are in the range of 1910 parts per billion. By comparison, NOAA’s Mauna Loa Station, on the edge of the tropics and well away from the polar overburden, records about 1850 parts per billion (ppb).

At current rates of atmospheric methane increase, it will take about 9 years for Mauna Loa to catch up to where Barrow is now. But by that time Barrow may be pushing 1970 ppb or more. In addition, all Arctic stations record numerous anomalous spikes in methane from local sources. The ESRL site lists these spikes as outliers. But, for all the ESRL reporting stations, the Arctic stations are the ones that host by far the most numerous such outliers. The local methane sources, therefore, appear to be quite active in the Arctic. An observation that polar scientist, Dr Jason Box, admits keeps him awake at night.

AIRS_Methane

(Global distribution of methane averaged over 2011 by NASA/AIRS. Note the very high concentrations in the Arctic region. For this map, the highest concentrations occur in the Yedoma region of Russia, a region of multiplying methane emitting tundra melt and Thermokarst lakes [see below]. Image source: NASA/AIRS.)

Perhaps the most reliable way to sample the Arctic methane overburden is to get a full view of it through satellite sensors. The above NASA image taken in 2011 shows a massive methane overburden in the upper latitudes that slowly diffuses southward. Note the highest concentrations in this image are near the permafrost zones in Yedoma in northeastern Russia.

NOAA also provides its METOP array which frequently finds methane concentrations at above 2400 parts per billion at the 10,000 to 20,000 foot level in broad blankets over the Arctic region — especially in the months of September through November and then again in January. Again, these measures are the highest in any region of the globe and they occur directly over the Arctic.

Dr. Leonid Yurgonov uses the AIRS/AQUA satellite sensor to provide a record of Arctic methane overburden. One that is clearly visible here:

methane-jan21-31

In the above image we see methane measurements at the 18,000 foot altitude above the Arctic and upper latitudes. The progression is from January of 2009 (furthest left) to January of 2013 (furthest right). Orange coloration represents methane readings in the range of 1850 to 1950 parts per billion. Deep red coloration is in the range of 2000 parts per billion. Note the shift from blues and yellows (1700-1800 ppb) to oranges and reds (1850-2000 ppb) during the five years from 2009 to 2013.

So not only does the AIRS sensor show overburden, but it also finds methane build-up over the period measured.

These combined measures alone provide more than enough evidence of a methane overburden in the far northern region together with a rate of buildup that maintains the overburden and leads the global methane measure. Cause for enough concern among Arctic researchers that they have tended to make statements like this:

The amount of methane in the Arctic hydrates alone is estimated as 400 times more than the global atmospheric CH4 burden! The question is timescale of the methane liberation: gradual, abrupt, or something in between. Satellite monitoring of methane over the Arctic Ocean is necessary! — Dr. Leonid Yurganov, AGU, 2012

Steady Increase So Far

But even if we do have both a buildup of methane in the polar region together with what looks like an ominous overburden, we should be quick to point out that the rate of increase, especially on the global scale, has been mostly steady so far.

Under any catastrophic methane release scenario, we would expect Arctic methane to rapidly jump higher, dragging the global measure along with it. In general, we’d expect almost all sensors to pick up the signal of an exponentially ramping curve. And we don’t see that as yet.

To this point, Dr. Yurganov’s statement from the 2012 AGU presentation is informative:

Current methane growth in the Arctic, including 2012, is gradual… If a sudden venting (bubbling) of methane would happen due to intense hydrates destruction, IASI would be able to detect it NRT.

Though there has been a bit of an uptick in global and Arctic methane increase rates during recent years, they have maintained about a 4-7 ppb annual increase since ending a decade-long pause from 1995 to 2005.

It is worth noting, however, that the global methane measure increasing at an exponential rate would be a trailing measure indicator — occurring only in the wake of any catastrophic or large-scale release. So, as a predictor, the global methane measure isn’t very useful.

Thermokarst Lakes 

Which brings us to the key question — what are the leading indicators of major methane releases or of catastrophic releases of the kind some have feared?

Since we have never directly observed one, and since large-scale or catastrophic releases are merely theoretical at this time, we can only point toward evidence of past large scale releases, and an ongoing, but apparently growing, smaller scale release happening now.

The first such related observation may well have come in the form of an increasing methane emission from Thermokarst Lakes. Thermokarst Lakes form when sections of permafrost thaw and collapse, creating a depression. In wet regions, water soon pools within these hollows. Organic material at the bottom of the pool is provided by thawing permafrost. In the anaerobic lake bottom environment, methane is generated as the organic material is broken down.

Over recent years, this increasingly widespread Thermokarst thaw and formation has resulted in a number of Arctic ‘fire lakes’ popping up — lakes whose methane emission is so great that bubble concentrations are high enough to burn. During winter, these bubbles are trapped beneath ice and when released, create an explosive mixture.

Thermokarst Lake

(Methane production in a thermokarst lake. Image source: The Royal Society.)

From the 1970s through the mid 2000s, it is estimated that some regions of the Arctic experienced as much as a 58 percent increase in methane release due to Thermokarst Lake formation alone. An important measure since a number of studies found that Thermokarst Lake formation was one of the primary drivers of methane release from the Arctic at the end of the last ice age.

But as a catastrophic release driver, Thermokarst Lake formation is relatively mild, even if it is capable of pushing Arctic methane release levels higher. As such, the next indicator — a discovery of large methane releases from the ocean floor in the Arctic — was somewhat more concerning.

Oceanic Plumes

For as of 2011 an expedition to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) found massive plumes of methane as large as 1 kilometer across emitting from the shallow sea bed region off Northeastern Siberia. The researchers, Shakhova and Similetov, seemed very concerned that this might be a sign of a potential impending large scale release on the order of 1 to possibly 50 gigatons. The methane stores for the ESAS alone were massive — in the range of hundreds of gigatons. So even a fractionally small release from this source could be devastating. For reference, a 1 gigaton release would more than double the annual methane release from all global human and natural sources. A 5 gigaton release, on its own, would be enough to more than double atmospheric methane concentrations. And since methane traps heat more than 20 times as efficiently as CO2 over a century time-scale, such a release would result in far more rapid warming than previously predicted by scientific bodies such as the IPCC. A very rapid rate of warming that would be extraordinarily difficult for human civilizations to adapt to.

Of course this announcement set off amazing controversy. We couldn’t be certain what the source of this methane was, some said. Was it submerged permafrost methane? Was it hydrate? Was it free gas methane? And how could we be certain that this release hasn’t been ongoing for some time?

If such a methane release was building up to a catastrophic event, what mechanism would be the cause? In other words, how might gigatons of methane suddenly blow up from the sea bed?

arctic-methane-concentrations-sep-nov-2009-2012

(Lower troposphere methane concentrations over the Kara, Laptev, and East Siberian Seas during September-November of 2009-2012 shows overburden in active oceanic release zones. Image source: Dr. Leonid Yurganov).

This point is worth a bit of further exploration. The issue is that the most unstable form of methane when warmed is the methane hydrate store mentioned above. Methane hydrate is a frozen combination of gas methane and water. It crystallizes into a kind of fire ice under high pressure and in low temperature environments. It typically forms about 200-600 feet below the sea bed as methane bubbling up from warmer regions below contacts seawater, high pressure and cold. If the layer is warmed under human heat forcing, the hydrate thaws releasing its gas. The gas now becomes stored in pockets under high pressure. The gas below pushes against the sea bed above and some of it bubbles out (and these releases are found in the large plumes along the ESAS and elsewhere). But most of it, so far, has remained entombed.

What, then, could cause the large stores of entombed gas releasing from destabilizing hydrate, to break through hundreds of feet of seabed — hitting first ocean water and then atmosphere?

Over the past four years conjecture over this issue has raged on. Swelling at points when Shakhova and Similetov would make a new announcement and then ebbing as a wave of reassurances would rush in from scientific critics and mainstream media.

By summer of 2014 a discovery of new, large-scale plumes in the Laptev Sea by the SWERUS C3 expedition set off another wave of media speculation and controversy. But as the dust settled it became clear that the Laptev sea floor had been added to the list of methane hot spots in the Arctic, following in the footsteps of the ESAS region as an area to watch for potential increasing rates of release.

Tundra Blowholes

In nature, gasses under high and increasing pressure often find pathways for escape. Typically, the escape is gradual — we see this in volcanic regions in the release of magma gasses through cracks in the earth and through vent pathways. And sometimes the escape is far more violent — with hot volcanic gasses blowing away even hill or mountainsides in spontaneous eruption, or bubbling out, en mass, through volcanic lakes to spill toxic plumes over a countryside.

The gas source in question for Arctic methane release — hydrate — is very large. Even at the low end, it is estimated that hundreds of gigatons of the stuff lay buried beneath frozen tundra ground or in ocean stores beneath the seabed. A gigaton is one billion tons. A billion tons of frozen hydrate would cover roughly one cubic kilometer. One cubic kilometer of a flammable gas under high pressure.

And in the Arctic, hundreds of billions of tons lay under rapidly warming permafrost both on land and in the submerged seabed.

Permafrost and Gas Hydrate Methane

(Graphic of permafrost and gas hydrate methane by Carolyn Ruppel. Note that 75 percent of the ESAS sea floor is in the range of 50 meters in depth or shallower and that buried hydrate deposits can be found in the range of 200-300 feet. Image source: Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change.)

As of 2011, some scientists were warning that we were seeing a slow release from some of this submerged hydrate store in the ESAS. By 2014, the potential slow release had expanded into the Laptev Sea.

But that year, 2014, also saw something else. A potential catastrophic release of methane. For in the frozen region of Yamal, Russia the earth near a remote Siberian village began to destabilize. Soon after, according to eyewitness accounts, the area began to smoke. Then, with a bright flash, the ground erupted.

When the smoke cleared, a massive crater was found where only flat, frozen tundra was there before. A giant plug of frozen earth had been ejected violently. And all that remained was an ominous gray-black crater.

Yamal crater

(Yamal Crater as seen from the air. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Researchers investigating the crater found 10 percent atmospheric methane concentrations at its base.

Overall, it was estimated that about 11 tons of TNT equivalent explosive force was enough to remove this 100+ foot wide and 220 foot deep plug from the Earth. Exploding and burning methane in the range of about 10 tons would have been enough to generate the crater. Gas under high pressure in the hundred + ton range may have been able to explosively excavate this hole.

As a result, the amount of methane in question for this single event was relatively small, especially when one considers the hundreds of billions of tons in the still frozen store.

It appeared that the rapidly warming Yamal territory and a broad region of nearby Northwestern Siberia may be seeing tundra warming extending deep enough to begin to destabilize pockets of relic hydrate. The hydrate in some of these pockets was beginning to thaw and catastrophically erupt to the surface.

By early 2015 a total of seven primary craters and scores of secondary craters of this kind had been discovered throughout this section of Siberia. Local Russian authorities were very concerned — moving seismographs into the area to monitor ground stability in a region that includes one of their largest natural gas developments.

A large upheaval of this kind in the wrong place would easily rupture a pipeline or destroy sections of a gas production operation. But the deeper irony was that continued gas production in this region was contributing to a problem that may well be making the ground far, far less stable and setting up the risk for even larger-scale eruptions.

For the Yamal crater wasn’t important due to the relative size of its methane release — the release was very small in the global context. A mere drop in an ocean of greenhouse gasses being emitted now by humans. It was important due to two other, and perhaps more stark, reasons.

The first was the very violent nature of its release — an eruption similar to that of a volcano — represented a severe geophysical upheaval that was all too likely triggered by a rapid human warming of the tundra. This kind of release, as the Russians in the region were quick to realize, represented a danger to both inhabitants and to infrastructure.

But the second reason is, perhaps, more important. It is the fact that the Yamal crater may well be evidence of the kind of mechanism for catastrophic methane release some of the more conservative scientists have been demanding. It’s possible, then, that the Yamal crater is in microcosm, what a truly catastrophic methane release might look like on the much larger scale. And the critical question to ask here is — could there be a connection between the methane blowholes we are now observing in the Arctic and a number of mysterious and gigantic craters discovered on the sea bed around the world?

Giant Craters on the Seabed

In 2013, marine geophysicist Dr Bryan Davy from GNS Science found what may be the world’s largest gas eruption craters on the seafloor about 310 miles east of Christchurch, New Zealand.

The craters, which the researchers called ‘pockmarks,’ formed in an active gas zone along the ocean bottom. They measured from 250 meters to 7 miles in diameter and about 300 feet deep. With the largest crater able to encompass all of lower Manhattan.

Giant Craters in the Seafloor off Christchurch New Zealand

(Giant craters off Christchurch New Zealand are thought to have formed due to large gas eruptions during previous episodes of sea bed warming. Could human warming set be setting off something similar for the Arctic? Image source: Mysterious Giant Crater Like Structure Found Near New Zealand.)

The craters are thought to have formed during ice ages when sea levels lowered off New Zealand causing the sea bed to warm and gas hydrate to thaw. Eventually, the gas is thought to have erupted into the surrounding water with a portion bubbling up into the atmosphere.

GEOMAR seismic records indicated active gas pockets beneath the crater zones. Dr Joerg Bialas, a GEOMAR scientist noted:

Gas release from the larger pockmarks may have been sudden and possibly even violent, with a massive volume being expelled into the ocean and atmosphere within hours or days.

The 300 foot depth of the craters touched the hydrate stability zone even as their large size indicated that massive pockets of the gas lifted away large sections of sea bed suddenly and violently. It’s the kind of rapid destabilized gas release that may well represent a worst-case Arctic warming scenario.

Cause for Appropriate Concern

So the question must be asked — is the Yamal crater physical validation of a catastrophic methane hydrate release mechanism that has circulated, as theory, through the geophysical sciences for decades? One that involves large eruptions that displace massive sections of earth and seabed during a violent release process. Are the Siberian methane blowholes smaller examples of what can happen on a much greater scale? And does the methane overburden in the Arctic, the documented increasing Thermokarst Lake release, the sea bed methane release in the Laptev and ESAS, and the new formation of methane blow holes in Yamal in the context of a rapidly warming Arctic tundra and sea bed (seeing unprecedented rates of warming) represent a growing risk for this kind of release?

Under even a ‘moderate’ 1 to 3.5 gigaton Arctic carbon release rate by end century given by the survey of 100 Arctic scientists, there will likely be more than enough potential freed methane to include large scale catastrophic releases similar to the kind seen off New Zealand and elsewhere (250 meter to 7 mile wide cratering events).

In this context, the issue is not one of ‘apocalypse now’ or ‘apocalypse not.’ That framing is all wrong. This issue is one of how much or how little geophysical upheaval and related methane release we will see — and how soon. One of how rapidly humans can stop making the situation even worse, by drawing down their own catastrophic emission rates as rapidly as possible.

There is, therefore, more than enough cause for appropriate concern and continued monitoring of what appears to be an ongoing destabilization of Arctic carbon stores — large enough to represent a variety of hazards both terrestrial and atmospheric.

Links:

High Risk of Permafrost Thaw

NOAA ESRL

NASA/AIRS

The Royal Society

Yedoma Thermokarst Lake Formation Increases Tundra Methane Release by 58 Percent

Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change

The Siberian Times

Meltfactor: Dragon’s Breath Hypothesis

AGU 2012 Meeting: Atmospheric Methane Over The Arctic Ocean

Mysterious Giant Crater Like Structure Found Near New Zealand

Scientific hat tips to Dr. Leonid Yerganov, Dr. Gavin Schmidt, Dr. David Archer, Dr. Igor Semiletov, Dr. Natalia Shakhova, Dr. Carolyn Ruppel, Dr. Jason Box, Dr. Peter Wadhams, Dr. Bryan Davy, Dr Joerg Bialas, SWERUS C3, GEOMAR and The Russian Center of Arctic Exploration

Siberian Permafrost Methane Shows Growing Eruption: Number of Global Warming-Induced Craters Now Estimated at 20-30

Siberian Crater Locations

(Siberian methane crater locations. In total, 7 methane blow holes with features similar to the Yamal Crater have now been discovered. Unofficial reports from observers on the ground have local scientists placing the likely count now at between 20-30 original craters with many more secondary craters. Image source: The Daily Mail.)

*   *   *   *   *

The ground smoked for hours. Then, with a great flash and an enormous boom, the land exploded. When the smoke cleared, all that was left was a great, black hole. Ejected earth lay scattered around it — sheer sides plunging into the permafrost like some gigantic, gaping gun barrel.

This was the scene last summer in Yamal, Siberia — a region of extreme northern Russia.

Mysterious Holes Emitting Methane Gas

Speculation about the cause of this mysterious hole became rampant. It looked like a sink hole, except for the ejected material surrounding it. Some said it was a pingo. But pingos weren’t known to form due to explosions.

Teams of scientists rapidly descended upon the hole. And there they found high readings of methane at the hole’s base — in the range of 10% concentration, which is a very explosive level for the gas. At the base of the hole they also found evidence of hydrate. A form of frozen water-methane that is quite unstable unless kept under high pressure and low temperature.

The initial conclusion of the Russian scientists was that relic hydrate sealed beneath the previously flooded Siberian permafrost had been destabilized. Eventually reaching an explosive concentration, it then erupted from the ground.

Discovery of this methane crater spurred a sweep of the area. Almost immediately, two other craters with similar features were discovered. And throughout fall and winter, both ground searches and satellite reconnaissance identified still more.

Methane blow hole lake surrounded by small craters

(Newly discovered methane blow-hole found by satellite observation. In the top frame we see tundra absent the newly formed hole. In the bottom frame, we find the hole forming a lake [B2] surrounded by 20 or more ‘baby craters.’ Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Now, according to recent reports in the Siberian Times, a total of seven craters with features similar to the Yamal eruption have been pinpointed by observers. Just one of these craters (shown above) hosted about 20 smaller ‘baby craters’ surrounding it. In this instance, a large methane store below the permafrost is thought to have explosively displaced a shot-gun pattern of frozen soil sections before filling with water.

Most of the craters, like the one above, were observed to rapidly fill with water even as they continued to emit methane. In many instances, the methane emission was visible as bubbles on the newly formed lake surface.

Bubbles from Methane Crater Lake

(Bubbles from suspected methane crater lake as seen by an observation aircraft. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

Additional reports from reindeer herders have led these same scientists to believe that in the range of 20-30 of these methane eruption holes are likely to exist in this region of Northwestern Siberia.

A Problem of Relic Hydrates Facing Rapid Warming

The fact that reindeer herders keep discovering new holes and that the first Yamal craters discovered earlier this year were recent events have led local scientists to believe that the eruptions are a new phenomena for Siberia. There, temperatures have warmed by a stunning 2 degrees Celsius within the mere span of 14 years. A very rapid rate of warming that is putting severe stress on the geophysical stability of this Arctic region.

Last night, as polar amplification again ramped up, we saw an example of this very rapid warming with locations in Yamal, Russia experiencing -3.1 C temperatures as of 1 AM Eastern Standard Time. A very warm measure for this region during winter time — representing an anomaly at least 20 degrees Celsius above average. For reference, North Texas, an area far south of the Arctic Circle, experienced similar readings (-3.4 C) at the same time:

imageimage

(Side-by-side frames showing 1 AM EST temperatures in Yamal Russia [left frame] and North Texas, US [right frame]. Location in the frames is indicated by the small green circle. Temperature, wind speed and direction, and grid location are given in the lower left hand corner. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

In other words, it was colder in North Texas last night than it was in Yamal, Siberia near the 70 degree North Latitude line beside the Arctic Ocean.

This extremely rapid warming is thought by Russian scientists to have destabilized zones of relic hydrate trapped beneath the permafrost. There, the methane gas bonded with water to form a kind of methane ice.

Sandwiched beneath frozen permafrost, the hydrate remains stable so long as temperatures and pressures are relatively constant. Any increase in warmth — either through geological processes working below the hydrate, or from changes at the surface causing permafrost to melt and warmer, liquid water to contact the hydrate — would result in increased hydrate instability.

Yamal Crater Wall

(The Yamal Crater as seen by Russian Scientists who investigated the scene last summer. The crater’s structure and surrounding ejecta was indicative of an explosive outburst. Image source: The Siberian Times.)

In some cases, the gas would very rapidly liberate from its frozen traps forming increasingly high pressure pockets beneath the permafrost. If these pockets reach 10 percent methane concentration, they become very explosive and can be ignited when in contact with a catalyst or ignition source. The result, either due to very high pressure or ignition, is plugs of permafrost exploding from the ground as the gas erupts to the surface.

Conditions in Context

It is important to note that the amount of methane liberated by these initial eruption events is likely rather small — when considered on the global scale. However, what we see in Siberia now may be part of a growing and ominous trend.

First, we do not know the size of the potential methane store that could be liberated in such an explosive fashion. And the question must be asked — if we are looking at such rapid warming of methane hydrates in shallow sea and former shallow sea regions, what scale eruptions could we potentially experience in the future? Could very large sections of hydrate go critical? Areas possibly covering hundreds or thousands of square meters or more?

The Russian scientists seem very concerned. And, ironically, it is for the future safety of their oil and gas infrastructure, which sits atop what is potentially a rapidly destabilizing zone. A zone that could see explosive eruptions of the ground beneath pipes, equipment and extraction fields. (One would think that the Russians would also begin questioning the continued exploration and production of oil and gas considering its contribution to the dangers they are now identifying. But that level of wisdom appears absent in the recent assessments.)

Second, it appears that these methane eruptions provide pathways for ongoing release. Not all of the gas in the relic hydrate is initially liberated. And the structures that remain apparently release methane gas for some time — as is evidenced by continued high methane concentrations found at crater sites and by observed emissions from crater lake surfaces.

In essence, if this is a growing trend, then it is a rather unsettling one. Especially when one considers that it is just a single instance of many possible amplifying carbon feedbacks set off by a very rapid human warming. Particularly, the explosive land and ocean floor-altering nature of this specific carbon feedback makes it especially troubling. For it encompasses the very nature of a catastrophic upheaval.

In the end, the question must be asked — is Siberia sitting atop a methane volcano that is being prodded to rapid wakening by high-velocity human warming?

Links:

Dozens of New Craters Suspected in Northern Russia

Are Siberia’s Mysterious Craters Caused by Climate Change?

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast Systems Model

More Siberian Craters Prompt Urgent Call For Investigation

Hat Tip to James Cole

Hat Tip to Wili

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Ignoring the Arctic Methane Monster: Royal Society Goes Dark on Arctic Observational Science

Back in 2011, a team of Arctic researchers shocked the world when they announced the observation of 1 kilometer across methane plumes issuing from regions of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Indications were that this shallow sea might be vulnerable to large-scale release. And in the flurry of observations that followed, it was discovered, according to lead scientists Shakhova and Semiletov, that about 17 teragrams of methane was being emitted each year from this region (which exceeds the total amount of methane currently leaking from all the US’s wells, coal beds, and pipelines combined[14 teragrams]).

The methane emission had not reached catastrophic levels, but the rate of release was far greater than expected. So there was some cause for concern. Concern that this larger than expected release was part of a ramp-up to something worse. A kind of climate nightmare scenario that no-one likes talking about.

Methane Oct 9 2014

(NOAA METOP data captured by Sam Carana on October 9 of 2014 shows a strong methane spike in the range of 2562 parts per billion — more than 700 parts per billion above the global average. Spikes of this kind are now rather common in the METOP data. Note that the origins of high atmospheric methane readings are mostly concentrated in the far north — an indication of a local methane overburden. Though not signs of catastrophic release, these spikes present a troubling trend in the observational record that is an indicator of an increasing Arctic methane release. Links: NOAA OSPO and Arctic News.)

There was no direct evidence, yet, that these fears were in the process of being realized. But there was certainly enough to sharply raise concerns, to increase the observational wing of the science, and to discuss and debate the observational results in the larger scientific bodies.

Questions arose and were addressed. One — citing that perhaps this much methane had been releasing from the ESAS for centuries — was answered when researchers discovered new methane plumes in only recently submerged tundra. An indication that at least a subset of the plumes were recent.

Broader Arctic methane science outside the bounds of specific ESAS release, which had for years identified a risk that rapidly thawing tundra would add new volumes of methane and CO2 to the Arctic atmosphere, provided additional cause for worry. Paper after paper found rising methane emissions from thawing tundra — in lakes and heating peat bogs and in any zone where the soil was anaerobic and warming. NASA’s CARVE study found 150 kilometer regions of terrestrial tundra emitting plumes of methane into the atmosphere and a subsequent study by CARVE found that current models combined with spotty observational evidence couldn’t even pin down total methane emissions for the Arctic region.

It was a clear sign that both the observational science and the model science was not yet mature enough to make decisive conclusions about rates of Arctic methane release. Much less accurately predict what would happen in a future that included the likelihood of Arctic warming at a pace 30 times that seen during the end of the last ice age and a global carbon emission (from human fossil-fuel based industry) that is six times faster than at any time in Earth’s geological past.

Ramping methane

(Steadily ramping atmospheric methane concentrations since 2008 indicate an additional methane release substantial enough to overwhelm the OH sink and result in strong annual increases. Conversely, from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s methane sinks and sources had reached a balance with atmospheric levels plateauing at around 1790 parts per billion. Notably, 2013 to 2014 has shown the most rapid rate of annual increase for many decades in this ESRL data. Was this methane spike at least in part spurred by major reductions in Arctic Sea Ice and coincidentally powerful polar amplification occurring since 2005? Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

That said, concerns that releases from the broader Arctic environment would increase due to human heat forcing abounded. In 2011, a group of 41 Arctic researchers projected that Arctic carbon release would equal ten percent of the total human emission if rapid reduction of carbon emissions was undertaken as soon as possible. Under business as usual carbon emissions through 2100, the researchers suggested that the Arctic feedback would amplify to a size equaling 35% or more of the human emission. Enough to set off a runaway to a hothouse state even if all human emissions were to cease.

This summer seemed to raise concerns even further with the SWERUS C3 mission discovering very large methane plumes in the Laptev Sea. Strange, anomalous, methane blow holes that no-one ever imagined or predicted appeared in the Yamal region of Russia. And though the methane release from the individual holes was small when compared to the global methane flux, they provided yet more contextual evidence of an increasingly unstable Arctic, one that is finding more and more pathways for carbon release — some of them catastrophically explosive.

methane bubbles near the Laptev sea surface

(Methane bubbles near Laptev Sea surface as observed by the SWERUS C3 mission. Image source: SWERUS C3.)

Royal Society Goes Dark on Arctic Methane Observation

Now, as the SWERUS C3 mission has come to a close, something rather odd has happened.

A part of the SWERUS C3 mission, perhaps the most important part, was to collect observational information about methane release from the sea bed. Initial reports from the mission indicated at least what appeared to be an important discovery in the Laptev. The mission also spent quite a period moving through regions of the ESAS — where earlier large releases were observed. It was expected that the lead researchers – Shakhova and Semiletov would present their findings. And what better place than the upcoming Royal Society meeting on ‘Arctic sea ice reduction: the evidence, models, and global impacts (emphasis added)?’

As a critical heat-trapping feedback in the Arctic, one would expect that observations on the release of methane — which is at least 25 times more potent a heat trapping gas by volume than CO2 — would be a matter of some importance to the issue of Arctic sea ice reduction. And it appears that the scientific forum was open enough to the issue to include a model-based discussion of the subject by Dr. Gavin Schmidt. But with the failure of the Royal Society to invite Shakhova and Semiletov, a good portion of the observational science was simply excluded.

Modelers, instead, could have a discussion with themselves. And though I assume such a discussion was somewhat enlightening and probably more than a little reassuring, one wonders how much realistic grounding such a discussion can have without including the most recent observational findings for debate and analysis.

To this point, earlier this month, Dr. Shakhova made the following statement on behalf of herself and the 30 other scientists involved in her research:

October 4th, 2014
By mail and email

Dear Sir Paul Nurse,

We are pleased that the Royal Society recognizes the value of Arctic science and hosted an important scientific meeting last week, organized by Dr D. Feltham, Dr S. Bacon, Dr M. Brandon, and Professor Emeritus J. Hunt (https://royalsociety.org/events/2014/arctic-sea-ice/).

Our colleagues and we have been studying the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) for more than 20 years and have detailed observational knowledge of changes occurring in this region, as documented by publications in leading journals such as Science, Nature, and Nature Geosciences. During these years, we performed more than 20 all-seasonal expeditions that allowed us to accumulate a large and comprehensive data set consisting of hydrological, biogeochemical, and geophysical data and providing a quality of coverage that is hard to achieve, even in more accessible areas of the World Ocean.

To date, we are the only scientists to have long-term observational data on methane in the ESAS. Despite peculiarities in regulation that limit access of foreign scientists to the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone, where the ESAS is located, over the years we have welcomed scientists from Sweden, the USA, The Netherlands, the UK, and other countries to work alongside us. A large international expedition performed in 2008 (ISSS-2008) was recognized as the best biogeochemical study of the IPY (2007-2008). The knowledge and experience we accumulated throughout these years of work laid the basis for an extensive Russian-Swedish expedition onboard I/B ODEN (SWERUS-3) that allowed more than 80 scientists from all over the world to collect more data from this unique area. The expedition was successfully concluded just a few days ago.

To our dismay, we were not invited to present our data at the Royal Society meeting. Furthermore, this week we discovered, via a twitter Storify summary (circulated by Dr. Brandon), that Dr. G. Schmidt was instead invited to discuss the methane issue and explicitly attacked our work using the model of another scholar, whose modelling effort is based on theoretical, untested assumptions having nothing to do with observations in the ESAS. While Dr. Schmidt has expertise in climate modelling, he is an expert neither on methane, nor on this region of the Arctic. Both scientists therefore have no observational knowledge on methane and associated processes in this area. Let us recall that your motto “Nullus in verba” was chosen by the founders of the Royal Society to express their resistance to the domination of authority; the principle so expressed requires all claims to be supported by facts that have been established by experiment. In our opinion, not only the words but also the actions of the organizers deliberately betrayed the principles of the Royal Society as expressed by the words “Nullus in verba.”

In addition, we would like to highlight the Anglo-American bias in the speaker list. It is worrisome that Russian scientific knowledge was missing, and therefore marginalized, despite a long history of outstanding Russian contributions to Arctic science. Being Russian scientists, we believe that prejudice against Russian science is currently growing due to political disagreements with the actions of the Russian government. This restricts our access to international scientific journals, which have become exceptionally demanding when it comes to publication of our work compared to the work of others on similar topics. We realize that the results of our work may interfere with the crucial interests of some powerful agencies and institutions; however, we believe that it was not the intent of the Royal Society to allow political considerations to override scientific integrity.

We understand that there can be scientific debate on this crucial topic as it relates to climate. However, it is biased to present only one side of the debate, the side based on theoretical assumptions and modelling. In our opinion, it was unfair to prevent us from presenting our more-than-decadal data, given that more than 200 scientists were invited to participate in debates. Furthermore, we are concerned that the Royal Society proceedings from this scientific meeting will be unbalanced to an unacceptable degree (which is what has happened on social media).

Consequently, we formally request the equal opportunity to present our data before you and other participants of this Royal Society meeting on the Arctic and that you as organizers refrain from producing any official proceedings before we are allowed to speak.

Sincerely,
On behalf of more than 30 scientists,
Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov

Which raises the question — if models aren’t being informed by current observation any longer, then what are they being informed by?

The exclusion also highlights a large and what appears to be growing rift between those who observe the Arctic system and some that model it. Concern for larger carbon release from the Arctic system appears to be steadily rising among Arctic observational specialists, while some modelers appear to have retreated into silos in an attempt to defend previous understandings that were based on earlier work. It would seem that the wiser move would be to attempt to incorporate new data into the models. But in some cases, this does not appear to be happening.

Sea ice vs model runs

(Arctic sea ice melt model runs were way off. Do we want to have a similar unpleasant surprise when it comes to methane release?)

In such cases, there is a high risk that a kind of institutional bias may form to delay the progress of the science. Such an instance would be tragic considering the dangers posed by the very rapid build-up of heat trapping gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere and the absolute necessity for swift and decisive action to prevent even broader-scale harm than we’ve already locked in. If we are misinformed of risk, even by those with the best of intentions, then we may grow complacent and fail to act soon enough on the basis of assurances that prove false at a later time.

Links:

Arctic News

The Distribution of Methane on Marine Arctic Shelves

Geophysical and Geochemical Evidence of Methane Release Over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Ebullition and Storm Induced Methane Release From East Siberian Arctic Shelf

High Risk of Permafrost Thaw

SWERUS C3

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release, Shows Amplifying Feedbacks from Human-Caused Climate Change

Arctic Methane Monster Shortens Tail: ESAS Emitting Methane at Twice Expected Rate

Arctic Methane Monster Stirs: NASA’s CARVE Finds Plumes as Large as 150 Kilometers Across

Tracking the Footprints of the Arctic Methane Monster

The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales: Third Tundra Hole Discovered

When it Comes to the Arctic Methane Monster What We Don’t Know Really Could Kill Us

Methane and Frozen Ground

NOAA OSPO

Large Methane Plumes Discovered on Laptev Continental Slope Boundary: Evidence of Possible Methane Hydrate Release

080407-O-xxxxX-004

(The Swedish Icebreaker Oden — now home to the 80 scientists and tons of equipment of the SWERUS 2014 research expedition aimed at measuring sea floor methane release throughout the Arctic this summer. Among the scientists leading the expedition is Igor Semiletov whose 2011 expedition discovered 1 kilometer wide plumes of methane issuing from the floor of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Image source: Commons.)

SWERUS-C3 researchers have on earlier expeditions documented extensive venting of methane from the subsea system to the atmosphere over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. On this Oden expedition we have gathered a strong team to assess these methane releases in greater detail than ever before to substantially improve our collective understanding of the methane sources and the functioning of the system. This is information that is crucial if we are to be able to provide scientific estimations of how these methane releases may develop in the future (emphasis added). — Örjan Gustafsson

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Over the past few years, the Arctic has been experiencing an invasion.

Emerging from the Gulf Stream, a pulse of warmer than normal water propagated north past Iceland and into the Barents Sea. There, it dove beneath the surface fresh water and retreating sea ice, plunging to a depth of around 200-500 meters where it concentrated, lending heat to the entire water column. Taking a right hand turn along the Siberian Continental Shelf, it crossed through the mid water zones of the Kara. Finally, it entered the Laptev and there it abutted against the downward facing slopes of the submarine continental region.

As the water temperatures at these depths warmed, researchers began to wonder if they would trigger the destabilization of methane hydrate stores locked  in deeper waters along the shelf boundary. And, now, a new expedition may have uncovered evidence that just such an event is ongoing.

Methane Hydrates and Troubling Releases from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf

Oceanic methane hydrates form when methane upon or beneath the sea bed freeze into a crystalline ice lattice. It is a hybrid water-methane mixture that only remains stable at higher sub-sea pressures and lower temperatures. Normally, oceanic hydrates form at great depth (about 600 meters or deeper) where a combination of high pressure and low temperature are the prevailing environmental factor. But the colder Arctic is a sometimes exception to this general rule.

In recent years, deep ocean warming due to human caused climate change has accelerated. It is feared that this warming may unlock vast stores of methane laying frozen along the deep sea bed or in more vulnerable continental shelf slope zones.

This warming is also feared to have begun a process of methane release along a unique submarine feature called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). There rising temperatures are hypothesized to have sped the thaw of submarine permafrost.

Frozen permafrost stores biologically generate gaseous methane at depths of 10-80 meters. Methane hydrate stores are locked away at depths starting at around 100 meters. Submerged beneath only a couple hundred feet of water, these methane stores are much shallower and, therefore, are in a naturally unstable zone.

The East Siberian Sea zone is unique due to the fact that it was only recently flooded, in geological terms. The frozen permafrost has only rested beneath the Arctic Ocean waters since the end of the last ice age and much of it remained frozen due to chill Arctic conditions. But now, human-caused climate change is driving warmer and warmer waters into the Arctic environment.

Elevated Methane ESAS

(Elevated atmospheric methane levels over East Siberian and Laptev Seas during October of 2013. Image source: Arctic News via Methane Tracker)

As the warming progressed during the first decade of the 21st Century, researchers observed what appeared to be an increasing release of methane from these thawing permafrost stores. In 2011, plumes from the sea bed stretching 1 kilometer across were observed by an Arctic expedition headed by Igor Similetov and Natalia Shakova. It appeared that the 250 to 500 gigatons of carbon locked in the ice in that shallow ocean was destabilizing and releasing from the sea floor as methane.

Now it is estimated that about 17 megatons of methane from this store vents through the shallow waters into the atmosphere each year. But this may just be the start of a far larger emission.

Methane Hydrate Release During Past Hothouse Events

Though the ESAS carbon and methane store is arguably one of the most vulnerable to human-caused warming, a far greater store of methane hydrate is estimated to be locked in crystalline ice lattice structures along the world’s continental slope systems and in the world’s deep ocean environments. Since the Earth has been cooling for the better part of 55 million years, a huge store of carbon as methane is now thought to have accumulated there. In total, between 3,000 and 10,000 gigatons of carbon are estimated to be captured in this vast store.

methane bubbles near the Laptev sea surface

(Methane bubbles near the Laptev Sea surface as observed by the SWERUS expedition last week. These bubbles were issuing from what are thought to be destabilizing methane hydrates along the Outer Laptev Continental Slope zone. Image source: Stockholm University.)

Global warming science, especially the science related to paleoclimate, indicates that Earth Systems warming tends to dump a lot of heat into the deep ocean. The atmosphere ocean-interface along the equator warms and becomes salty due to enhanced evaporation. The warmer, saltier water sinks, driving heat into the deep ocean. At the poles, ice sheet melt sends out a wave of fresh water along the ocean surface. The fresh water acts as an insulator between atmosphere and water, locking the warm water beneath the surface and pushing it toward the bottom. This process, called ocean stratification, is, among other things, an ocean heat exchange machine that turns the ocean bottom into a warming-induced house of horrors.

We would expect a similar process to be set in motion through human warming.

Ultimately, this combination of forces results in a collision of warm water with frozen methane stores and serves as a mechanism for their destabilization. If even a portion of this deep ocean methane hits the air, it can further accelerate already rampant warming.

Today, we may be at the start of just this kind of process.

Large Methane Plumes Discovered Along The Laptev Slope Boundary

Last week, large plumes of methane were found to be issuing from the outer Laptev Sea floor at the border zone where the bottom climbs up to meet the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Researchers on the scientific study vessel Oden found:

elevated methane levels, about ten times higher than in background seawater, [that] were documented … as we climbed up the steep continental slope at stations in 500 and 250 m depth.

Expedition researchers noted:

This was somewhat of a surprise. While there has been much speculation of the vulnerability of regular marine hydrates (frozen methane formed due to high p [pressure] and low T [temperature]) along the Arctic rim, very few actual observations of methane releases due to collapsing Arctic upper slope marine hydrates have been made.

An Ice-Free Laptev Sea

(An ice-free Laptev Sea on July 28, 2014. Last week, researchers discovered a kilometers wide plume of methane bubbling up from the Continental Shelf sea bed in these typically-frozen waters. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Overall the size of the release zone was quite large, covering several kilometers of sea bed and including over 100 methane seepage sites:

Using the mid-water sonar, we mapped out an area of several kilometers where bubbles were filling the water column from depths of 200 to 500 m. During the preceding 48 h we have performed station work in two areas on the shallow shelf with depths of 60-70m where we discovered over 100 new methane seep sites.

Due to the depth and location of the methane above the continental slope zone, researchers hypothesize that the source of the methane is from hydrate stores in the region.

It is worth noting that though it is rare to observe methane releases from the upper slope zone, current science has found destabilizing hydrates in deep water off the US East Coast along the continental shelf slope zone and in deep waters off Svalbard among other places. In addition, satellite observation of the Arctic Ocean has recently shown periods of high and above normal methane readings in the Laptev, Kara and East Siberian Seas. Elevated atmospheric readings have also appeared over the Nares Strait near Greenland. These are all zones that have experienced substantial deep ocean warming over the past few decades.

SWERUS 2014 is now heading toward ESAS waters where so many large methane plumes were discovered in 2011. There, the expedition hopes to use its impressive array of sensors and expertise to better define and understand what appear to be large-scale but not yet catastrophic methane releases underway there.

Links:

SWERUS 2014

SWERUS-C3

LANCE-MODIS

Stockholm University

Arctic Methane Monster Shortens Tail

Arctic News

Commons

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is This the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun? Second Mysterious Hole Found in Yamal Russia

They call it ‘the end of the Earth.’

Yamal, Russia — a stretch of tundra flats and peat bogs stretching as far as the eye can see before terminating into the chill waters of the Kara. A rather stark and desolate place, one that was mostly unknown until a massive and strange hole appeared in the earth there last week. Since that time, the strange hole has been the butt of every kind of wild speculation and controversy.

Yamal Siberia

(MODIS satellite shot of Yamal Siberia — the peninsula located in center frame and recent site of mysterious holes that may have been caused by the catastrophic destabilization of thawing methane gas embedded in the permafrost. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The hole itself was an alien feature. “We haven’t seen anything like this before,” would be an entirely accurate statement. All about the hole was a large pile of debris — overturned earth, huge chunks of soil piled up in a signature very familiar to the ejecta of a meteor impact crater.

Approaching the hole edge, we came to a gradual slope that proceeded downward for about 40 feet at about a 35 degree incline. Along the surface of this incline, both the unfrozen soil cap and the frozen permafrost were visible.

But it wasn’t until we hit the bottom edge of this incline that we encountered the strangest feature of all — a sheer cliff, rounded in a shape like the smooth bore of a gun, and plunging straight down through icy permafrost for about another hundred and twenty feet before revealing a basement cavern slowly filling with melt.

It’s a combination of features that appears to be one half impact crater and one half sink hole.

Russia Siberia Crater

(The freakish combination of features including apparent ejecta piled around a crater with a sheer tunnel coring 220 feet down. Image source: The Siberian Times)

One theory on the feature is that it might be a pingo — a melting of a permafrost water pocket left over by an ancient lake that was long ago buried by sediment. But a pingo would typically form in a manner similar to a sinkhole and would probably not have apparent ejected material piled around its mouth.

Another theory, advanced by Russian Arctic scientists, is that a pocket of gas beneath the permafrost spontaneously destabilized — either through chemical or physical processes. The destabilized gas then is thought to have violently blown away the surface layer “like the popping of a cork in a champagne bottle.”

The Compost Bomb

Key to the second theory is that thawing permafrost contains vast stores of volatile methane at various depths. The methane is either trapped in pockets encased in ice and soil or locked in a water lattice structure forming what is called methane hydrate. Both forms are unstable, though they are often buried beneath tens to hundreds of meters of permafrost. Researchers have remained unsure how rapidly this methane would release and its rate of release is key to how fast the world will warm this century in response to human-caused greenhouse gas heat forcing.

Over 1,400 gigatons of carbon are sequestered in the permafrost. Much of this immense store is biological material buried over the 2 million year span of below-freezing conditions dominating much of the Arctic region of our planet. During this time, gradual glacial advance and retreat froze and refroze the earth in layers entombing a vast load of the stuff. Now, human warming is beginning to unlock it.

Permafrost spans much of the Arctic, under-girding Siberia, far Northern Europe, the northern tiers of Canada, and most of Alaska. It also rests beneath a flooded zone called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Initial reports and research from these regions indicate an ongoing release of millions of tons of methane and CO2 annually. Bubbling seabed stores from the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf have caused some to speculate that releases of 1 billion tons to 50 billion tons of methane could be possible during the coming years and decades.

Tundra map NASA

(Is a sleeping dragon awakening in the Arctic? Map of wide expanse of permafrost containing 1,400 gigatons of carbon. Image provided by NASA’s CARVE methane research experiment which is now under the aegis of ABOVE.

Peter Wadhams, in an article for Nature last year, attempted to bracket the potential impacts of such large releases. In the article, Wadhams estimated that a 50 gigaton emission from the Arctic methane store over the next two decades would increase global temperatures by about 0.6 C above the current rate of warming and force temperatures through the 2 C barrier by 2035 (ironically, Michael Mann comes to the same conclusion without implicit inclusion of a powerful methane release). The costs in human lives and economic damage from such a release would be immense and it would risk further outbursts from the large and vulnerable carbon store.

And though the potential for such very large releases remain highly controversial among scientists, the massive pile of thawing permafrost carbon is an ominously large and unstable store facing off against an initial human warming that is more than six times faster than at any time during the geological past.

In the shadow of this emerging and hard to gauge threat, a term emerged to encapsulate the vast warming potential stored in permafrost, should it release and hit the atmosphere. The term — compost bomb — alludes to the risk involved in pushing the two-million-year-old Northern Hemisphere permafrost stores into rapid thaw.

Mystery Hole — A Smoking Gun?

With the spontaneous emergence of a strange hole that Russian scientists are linking to destabilized gas pockets within the permafrost due to thaw, it became possible that, yet one more, explosive mechanism for release had presented itself. And now, today, a second and similar hole has been discovered:

According to the Moscow Times:

“Global warming, causing an alarming melt in the ice under the soil, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne cork,” the news report said, citing an expert at the Subarctic Scientific Research Center.

The first hole is estimated to be about 50 meters wide and 70 meters deep, with water from melting permafrost cascading down its sides into the icy deposit below.

The second hole is “exactly” like the first one, but “much smaller,” local lawmaker Mikhail Lapsui told the Interfax-Ural news agency. “Inside the crater itself, snow can be seen. (emphasis added)”

And so, in the course of just one week, we have two very strange holes that Russian scientists are linking to destabilizing gas pockets beneath the thawing tundra. Smoking barrel of the compost bomb? Or as a commenter here called Colorado Bob puts it:

We’re going to see the tundra breaking out in these things like zits on a teenager.

Let’s hope these are mere sink-holes from collapsing ice pockets in the permafrost. Let’s hope there’s another explanation for what appears to be ejecta piled around these holes. Let’s hope that these ‘zits’ showing up in the Yamal permafrost remain local to the area. And let’s hope we don’t start seeing similar explosive outbursts from tundra in other regions, or worse, along the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Lastly, let’s hope that any outbursts remain small in size and do not lift very large sections of land or submerged sea bed.

In any case, these initial reports are not promising and it appears we may both have a compost bomb smoking gun and a potential mechanism for rapid destabilization and explosive release of gas pockets deeply embedded in the frozen tundra all wrapped into one. Not very reassuring to say the least.

Links:

Mystery Behind Giant Hole Clearer as Second Hole Discovered

Now There Are Two Weird Holes in Siberia

LANCE-MODIS

The Siberian Times

NASA/CARVE

ABOVE

Impacts of Large Releases from Monstrous Arctic Methane Stores

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick

Hat tip to todaysguestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

 

Tracking the Footprints of the Arctic Methane Monster: Black Craters in the Siberian Tundra, Methane Lacing 2,500 Mile Wide Smoke Plumes Over Gigantic Arctic Wildfires.

Massive plume of smoke from Siberian Wildfires expands to cover more than 2,500 miles

(Are massive fires spurred by human-caused warming tapping basement methane pockets within the Arctic Tundra? Massive smoke plume from unprecedented Siberian wildfires expands to blanket more than 2,500 miles of Russian Siberia and Arctic Ocean shores. METOP sensors show high levels of methane ranging from 2,000 to 2,200 parts per billion or 150 to 350 ppb above the global average, at 18,000 feet within the smokey overburden. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

 

Is the Arctic Methane Monster climate science’s version of he who must not be named?

For apparently, Arctic Methane, in all its various permutations, has become the gas that mainstream media and climate media now no longer mentions.

NASA’s CARVE study has been silent for a year, the University of Maryland has stopped putting out publicly available AIRS methane data measures, the NOAA ESRL methane flask measures, possibly due to lack of funding, haven’t updated since mid-May, and even Gavin Schmidt over at NASA GISS appears to have become somewhat mum on a subject that, of late, has generated so much uncomfortable controversy.

Despite this fading out of the topic and related publicly available data, likely due to an overall discomfort with the potential nasty implications of an expanding Arctic methane release combined with efforts by conservative political forces to de-fund observational climate science, large Arctic carbon and related methane stores remain vulnerable to the various forces set in motion by human-caused warming. In essence, it’s a problem that won’t go away no matter how much you ignore it.

The subsea permafrost, methane clathrates locked in mud and sediment on and beneath the sea bed, methane generated from wet, thawing tundra, and methane locked in pockets far beneath the boreal forests and tundra all remain in stores of untold gigatons and gigatons. A massive volume that represents an extraordinary potential amplifying feedback to the unprecedentedly rapid human-caused warming of Arctic lands and oceans risking a very dangerous release.

Did Explosive Methane Release Gouge a Black Crater in Siberian Tundra?

This week, Arctic methane cognitive dissonance reached a new extreme as the discovery of a large, 100-foot-wide hole in a section of tundra along Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula set mainstream media abuzz. The new discovery fueled speculation that a large pocket of thawing subsurface methane may have undergone explosive release. The resultant explosion is thought to have violently ejected soil and scorched the crater leaving a black hole in the tundra:

(Images from expedition sent to survey strange hole in Yamal, Siberia. Note the exposed and still frozen tundra along the steep edge. If the embed code isn’t working on your browser you can view the video here.)

Other potential culprits include a meteor impact or tundra collapse due to subsurface ice melt. But the ejecta signature appears to be one of a crater that underwent a violent explosion and Russian scientists seem certain that a meteor was not involved. Anna Kurchatova of the Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre believes the most likely suspects are the explosion of thawing methane due to a volatile mixture of water, methane and salt triggering an eruption or the building up of pressure due to the venting and expansion of the thawed gas causing the overlying land feature to be violently ejected like a champagne cork.

The large sub-surface methane stores are certainly there and we’ve known for some time that risks of explosive out-gassing of this material, due to human caused warming and thaw of frozen methane stores, was possible given a chemical or thermal release and ignition mechanism. If the Yamal (which unhappily translates to mean ‘end of the world’) crater is the result of a violent explosion of thawing methane and ejection of the overlying earth strata, it will have implications not only for tundra permafrost thaw but for sea-bed permafrost thaw and ocean methane clathrate thaw as well.

So the question remains — how many more explosions ripping apartment building-sized or larger holes in the Earth are we in for if thawing and exploding methane was, indeed, the culprit of this, admittedly odd and disturbing, event? And what impact will this have on an atmosphere already well overburdened with human greenhouse gasses?

Methane Spikes in Smoke above Siberian and Canadian Tundra Fires

Meanwhile, investigation of 18,000 foot methane readings reveals high levels of methane gas lacing the large clouds of smoke spreading from massive wildfires over Canada and especially Siberia. NOAA’s METOP sensor shows atmospheric methane in the smoke/cloud layer at and above 18,000 feet ranging in excess of 2,000 parts per billion over sections of Canada and North America as well as over a broad swath covering Central and Northeastern Siberia. Highest atmospheric methane readings at this altitude were in smoke clouds over Siberia at levels near 2,200 parts per billion.

For reference, the current atmospheric average is around 1860 parts per billion at the surface.

High Methane Readings Coincident with Large Smoke Plumes at 18,000 Feet

(High atmospheric methane readings coincident with large smoke plumes from tundra fires over Siberia and Canada. Data from METOP provided by NOAA.)

Absent other research provided by scientists, both the very large hole in the tundra in Russia’s Yamal Peninsula (that some scientists are saying was the result of a very large methane pocket erupting to the surface) together with coincident measures of high methane readings in smoke plumes over Arctic wildfires provide evidence of an ongoing and hazardous Arctic methane release. Though overall emissions rates have, likely, not yet reached catastrophic levels, the potential for moderate to catastrophically strong feedback from this very large and volatile carbon store should be serious cause for concern and the focus of concerted national and international investigation. Given the risk, the current silence and apparent scientific withdrawal from broader Arctic methane research is entirely inappropriate and short-sighted.

UPDATE:

Apparently, CARVE’s Arctic methane observation mission is still underway and will be posting updates based on currently ongoing research soon.

According to Peter Griffith:

CARVE is fully funded and flying in Alaska and Canada this year. Expect first results at the AGU meeting in December… NASA is doubling down on Arctic research having just announced a $100 million decade-long field campaign, the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment. http://above.nasa.gov or follow me on twitter @NASA_ABoVE.

Notably, Chip Miller is still heading the project at JPL as well.

Continued funding for both CARVE and expanded funding for the Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment are certainly reassuring. No word on satellite methane sensors providing publicly available and detailed information (other than METOP, as the more refined AIRS data is difficult to access publicly). ESRL flask measures, as noted above, have also been slow to update, possibly due to funding constraint.

Links:

Bizzare Crater in Siberia Baffles Scientists

A Mysterious Crater in Siberia has Scientists Seeking Answers

Eerie Crater at The End of the World

LANCE-MODIS

NOAA/METOP

 

The Arctic Methane Monster’s Nasty Little Helpers: Study Finds Ancient, Methane Producing, Archaea Gorge on Tundra Melt

An emerging methane feedback in the Arctic. It’s something that, since last summer, I’ve been calling the Arctic Methane Monster. A beast of a thing composed of giant reserves of sea bed methane and an immense store of carbon locked away in Arctic tundra.

How dangerous and vicious the monster ends up being to a world set to rapidly warm by humans depends largely on three factors. First — how fast methane is released from warming stores in the sea bed. Second — how swiftly and to what degree the tundra carbon store is released as methane. Third — how large the stores of carbon and methane ultimately are.

permafrost_arctic-1024x557

(Thawing permafrost and organic carbon in Yedoma region of Russia. Image source: NASA.)

On the issue of the first and third questions, scientists are divided between those like Peter Wadhams, Natalia Shakhova and Igor Simeletov who believe that large methane pulses from a rapidly warming Arctic Ocean are now possible and warrant serious consideration and those like Gavin Schmidt and David Archer — both top scientists in their own right — who believe the model assessments showing a much slower release are at least some cause for comfort. Further complicating the issue is that estimates of sea-bed methane stores range widely with the East Siberian Arctic Shelf region alone asserted to contain anywhere between 250 and 1500 gigatons of methane (See Arctic Carbon Stores Assessment Here).

With such wide-ranging estimations and observations, it’s no wonder that a major scientific controversy has erupted over the issue of sea bed methane release. This back and forth comes in the foreground of observed large (but not catastrophic) sea-bed emissions and what appears to be a growing Arctic methane release. A controversy that, in itself, does little inspire confidence in a positive outcome.

But on the second point, an issue that some are now calling the compost bomb, most scientists are in agreement that the massive carbon store locked in the swiftly thawing tundra is a matter of serious and immediate concern.

Tundra Thaw by Human GHG Now Practically Inevitable

At issue here is the initial power of the human heat forcing and what consequences that forcing is likely to unlock. Consequences that are directly tied to the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit. A total forcing that is now likely equivalent to around 425 CO2e when taking into account the effect of human aerosols and an even more ominous 480 CO2e when and if those aerosols fall out (IPCC and MIT).

The first number, 425 CO2e, were it to remain stable over years, decades and centuries, is enough push global temperatures above the 1.5 C warming threshold that would thaw the northern hemisphere tundra. And within this tundra is locked a store of about 1,500 gigatons of carbon. A massive store that is set to eventually, thaw, decompose and release its carbon as either CO2 or methane over the long period of warmth that is to come.

Area of contiguous permafrost

(Northern Hemisphere Permafrost Zones. Image source: NASA.)

The immense size of this carbon store represents an extreme risk both for extending the period of human warming and for, potentially, generating a feedback in which natural warming adds to, rather than simply extends, human warming. By comparison, human fossil fuel emissions have already resulted in about 540 gigatons of carbon being released into the atmosphere. The tundra store alone represents nearly three times this amount. But the concern is not just the massive size of the tundra store now set to thaw, or the rate at which the tundra will, eventually, release its carbon to the atmosphere. The concern is also how much of the tundra store carbon is released as either methane or CO2.

Methane Provides a Strong Amplifying Feedback

Since methane’s radiative absorption is about 35 times that of CO2 by volume in the IPCC climate assessments (and its short term global warming potential is as much as 72 to 105 times that of a comparable amount of CO2) and since methane release sets off other feedbacks by turning into CO2 after it is oxidized and by increasing atmospheric water vapor, a strong greenhouse agent in its own right, a significant portion of tundra carbon being liberated as methane could result in a rather powerful heat amplification. In the worst case, such an amplification could set off conditions similar to those during which other mini-greenhouse gas runaways occurred — such as the Permian, Triassic and PETM events.

Which is why the release of a new paper should be cause for serious concern.

Ancient Archaea — The Arctic Methane Monster’s Nasty Little Helpers

This week, a paper published in Nature Communications described findings based on a study of thawing Swedish permafrost. The study investigated how microbes responded to thawing tundra in various mires throughout warming sections of Sweden. What they discovered was the increased prevalence of an ancient methane producing micro-organism.

Billions of years ago, methane producing cyanobacteria or archaea were prevalent in the world’s oceans. The methane they produced helped keep the Earth warm at a time when solar output was much less than it is today. Later, as oxygen producing plants emerged, the archaea, to which oxygen was a poison, retreated into the anoxic corners of the more modern world. Today, they live in the dark, in the mud, or in the depths of oceans. There, they continue to eek out an existence by turning hydrogen and carbon dioxide into methane.

A kind of archaea, the newly discovered organism, named methanoflorens stordalenmirensis, was found to be exploding through sections of rapidly melting Swedish tundra. In fact, it is so at home in regions of melting permafrost that it blooms in the same way algae blooms in the ocean. As a result, it comes to dominate the microbial environment, representing 90% of the methanogens and crowding out many of the other microbes.

Distribution of Methanogen

(Methanogen shows global distribution. Each dot indicates a location where methanoflorens stordalenmirensis was discovered. Image source: Nature.)

That these massive archaea blooms can effectively convert large portions of the newly liberated tundra carbon store into methane was not at all lost on researchers:

“Methanoflorens stordalenmirensis seems to be a indicator species for melting permafrost. It is rarely found where there is permafrost, but where the peat is warmer and the permafrost is melting we can see that it just grows and grows. It is possible that we can use it to measure the health of mires and their permafrost. The recently documented global distribution also shows, on a much larger scale, that this microbe spreads to new permafrost areas in time with them thawing out. This is not good news for a stable climate“, said study author Rhiannon Mondav.

So what we have here is a billions year old microbe that thrives in wet regions called mires where permafrost is melting, rapidly converts tundra carbon to methane, readily spreads to new zones where permafrost melt occurs, and explodes into algae like blooms to dominate these environments.

One could not ask for a set of more diabolic little helpers for the already very disturbing Arctic Methane Monster…

Implications Going Forward: Arctic Methane Emission Not Currently Catastrophic, But Likely to Continue to Grow

Recent research shows that the current methane emission from all natural sources north of 53 degrees north latitude is on the order of 81 trillion grams (TG) each year. A portion of this, about 17 TG, comes from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Other inputs are from sea bed sources, thawing tundra and existing wetlands in the region. Meanwhile, the global emission, including both human and natural sources is in the range of about 600 TG each year. Overall, this emission is enough to overwhelm current sinks by about 40 TG each year, which results in continuing increases of atmospheric methane.

Atmospheric Methane Mauna Loa

(Atmospheric methane levels since 1969, Mauna Loa, show levels rising by about 200 ppb over the 45 year period. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

As more and more of the tundra melts and as seabed methane continues to warm it is likely that total Arctic methane emissions will continue to rise, perhaps eventually rivaling or, in the worst case, exceeding the size of the human methane emission (350 TG). But, to do so, current Arctic and boreal emissions would have to more than quadruple — either through a slow increase (high likelihood) or through more catastrophic large pulse events (lower likelihood, but still enough for serious concern). By contrast, recent warm years have shown increases in the rate of methane flux/emission of around 5% with the average flux increase being around 2%.

It is worth noting that NOAA and a number of other agencies do track methane emissions in the Arctic but that a comprehensive tool set for accurately tracking the total emission does not appear to be currently available. Instead, various studies are conducted in an effort to capture total emissions levels. Monitoring does, however, track total atmospheric values.

Links:

Discovery of a Novel Methanogen Prevalent in Thawing Permafrost

Methane Producing Microbe Blooms in Permafrost Thaw

The Arctic Methane Monster

The Arctic Methane Monster Stirs

Living in a World at 480 CO2e

Caves Point to Thawing in Siberia

NSIDC: Climate and Frozen Ground

Thawing Permafrost Could Cause 2.5 Times the Warming of Deforestation

Is a Sleeping Giant Waking in the Arctic?

Radiative Forcing of Non CO2 Greenhouse Gasses

Carbon Tracker CH4

Winter 2013 Shows Increasing Arctic Methane Feedback to Human Caused Warming

Methane-Jan21-31

(Image source: AQUA Satellite, NASA. Image produced by Dr. Leonid Yurganov)

Steadily increasing Arctic methane emissions over the past decade are a dangerous amplifying feedback to human caused climate change.

This emission is a direct result of a rapid heating of the Arctic caused by human global warming via the ever-increasing volume of CO2 emitted and stored in the Earth’s atmosphere. Since the year 2000, world CO2 levels have risen from about 365 ppm to 396.8 ppm today. This rapid increase in CO2 is driving enhanced heating of the Arctic environment on the order of about one degree Celsius per decade.

The extra heat in the Arctic does work melting glaciers, reducing sea ice, and rapidly reducing spring time snow cover. The result is a warming of the Arctic tundra and sea bed. As these areas warm, methane stored in the frozen permafrost and in methane hydrates on the sea bed are released.

Amplifying Methane Release Adds to Already Difficult CO2 Problem

Since the year 2000, we have seen growing levels of methane release throughout the Arctic. This methane provides an extra push to global warming by adding more heat-trapping gasses on top of already high and rising values of CO2. Over the course of a century, methane provides 20 times the amount of heat trapping by volume compared to CO2. But short-term warming caused by methane is even greater, about 100 times that of CO2. So increasing levels of Arctic methane as a feedback to human-caused warming further amplifies the overall problem of climate change.

The above series of images provides Arctic methane levels from January 21-31 of 2009 through January 21-31 of 2013. As you can see, over this period Arctic methane levels ramped steadily higher, increasing by about 10-20 ppb on average each year. This steady increase provides a substantial additional forcing to an Arctic that is already much warmer than in previous decades.

Increasing Arctic methane levels combine with sea ice melt and early snow melt to create a powerful amplifying feedback over much of the Arctic. And carbon stores in the Arctic are massive. The US National Snow and Ice Data Center estimates that there are 1400 gigatons of carbon locked in Arctic permafrost alone. This volume compares to the 880 gigatons of carbon already put into the atmosphere via human greenhouse gas emissions. Arctic methane hydrates compose at least another 1000 gigatons of carbon. So for even a fraction of this carbon to be released would result in a substantial addition to human-caused warming.

Human Forcing Just Keeps Rising

All these hundreds and thousands of gigatons of methane would have remained locked in frozen storage without the ever-increasing amounts of CO2 we keep dumping into the atmosphere. From February of 2012 to 2013, global CO2 levels increased by 3.2 parts per million, far higher than even for the already high average of 2.2 parts per million each year over the past five years. At 396.8 parts per million, CO2 is now providing a large amount of heat forcing to the atmosphere. And it is this rising level of heat trapping gasses that has set the Arctic environment in motion.

These increased feedbacks through human forcing make the challenge of dealing with human-caused climate change all the more difficult and urgent. From this point forward, the more we push the climate, the more it is likely to respond by contributing its own stores of carbon from sinks that are now in the process of turning into sources. A rapid transition away from the use of fossil fuels is, therefore, necessary to ensure an already difficult problem does not grow worse.

Links:

Top Scientists Speak Out on Growing Risk of Methane Emergency

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/

http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/frozenground/methane.html

https://robertscribbler.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/satellite-data-compiled-by-university-of-maryland-shows-amplifying-arctic-methane-release/

Scientific Debate Over Arctic Methane Release Emerges: Long Tail Or Large Pulse?

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of conflicting scientific reports analyzing the amplifying methane release currently underway in the Arctic. Since this field of study is relatively new, it has been difficult to develop a consensus between the various studies and observations. But now, a distinct set of camps is beginning to emerge.

With the recent publication of a report headed by Katey Anthony, a scientific view has crystalized around the notion that Arctic methane release will be gradual, linear, and result in a long tail of amplification to human caused global warming over the time-scale of decades to centuries. This view, headed by David Archer at the climate blog Realclimate, has formed one side of the Arctic Methane debate among scientists. The result, according to Archer, would be a long-term increase in atmospheric carbon.

Anthony’s study focused on methane seeps at the edge of glaciers and at the boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw. The primary region of study was Alaska, with some secondary research occurring in Greenland. Given this focus, Anthony found that methane emissions from these sources in the Arctic were double that expected by scientists. Anthony also found that methane emission was most rapid at the leading edge of glacial melt and rapidly tapered off after melting ceased.

The result was that the findings showed that rate of methane release, from glaciers and permafrost at least, is directly tied to the overall rate of melt. So, in the context of this study, your view of the potential for methane release depends the pace of glacial and permafrost thaw.

Analysis of Anthony’s paper by David Archer led him to conclude that: “the general response time of the system is slow, decades to centuries, rather than potentially poised to release a huge pulse of methane within a few years.” This conclusion is consistent with Archer’s view of a relatively gradual and linear melt down in the Arctic glacier and permafrost system. His scientific view, thus far, has been for a gradual contribution of Arctic carbon to the climate system with the ultimate deposition of a substantial portion of the 1200+ gigatons of Arctic carbon into the atmosphere over the relative long-term.

“The 1200 Gton C of Arctic methane hydrates and the permafrost carbon stack up pretty menacingly against our 700 Gton left to go, and the comparison is relevant even if the carbon is emitted slowly, or as CO2 rather than methane, or even if it is released into the ocean rather than into the air.”

Overall, this is not an entirely optimistic view. It is instead the argument for slowly amplifying Arctic methane emissions rather than large pulse emissions. The result being that the Arctic contributes a ‘long tail’ of amplification to an already worsening climate picture. Under Archer’s model, there is more time to change, but the end results of long-term human greenhouse gas emissions are the same.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt some of the premises for Archer’s view. As already noted, Archer implies that glacial and tundra melt will be gradual. Archer also seems to imply that releases from hydrates will also be gradual and not necessarily breach the sea surface. But rates of tundra and glacial melt are already amplifying. Meanwhile, observations from some regions of the Arctic already imply increases in the volume of methane reaching the air with the largest methane emissions structures seen on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Some of these massive structures measured more than a kilometer across.

And while there is some argument as to whether these large methane structures are new or have existed over long periods of time, we have seen satellite data that show an increasing Arctic methane emission over the past 9 years. Heating in the Arctic has been very rapid. And we have already seen nonlinear melt in the Arctic sea ice.

Overall, the context of these conditions is for a very energetic Arctic environment. One that pushes toward non-linear melt, not for a gradual loss of the icy methane cap. The result of these forces have caused some scientists, including Shakhova, to estimate that it is possible for large methane pulses to form in the Arctic during rapid periods of melt and heating. These pulses, Shakhova notes, could be as large as 50 gigatons and could occur during relatively short time-frames. Since the current atmospheric concentration of methane is only 5 gigatons, and since methane is at least 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, a 50 gigaton pulse would have serious impacts for amplifying the already powerful forcing of human-caused warming.

The fact that non-linear responses to global warming have already been established in the recent history of Arctic melt would seem to point to a not insignificant potential for Shakhova’s view bearing out. However, this does not mean that Archer paints a rosey picture either. The two views represent a range of possibilities for Arctic melt and methane release from ratcheting long-term harm, to potential devastating releases in the relative near term — years to decades rather than decades to centuries.

Outside of climate change denial, this is the debate we should currently be having about the impacts of human climate change to the Arctic ice-methane system. And this debate, between bad and worse potentials, draws a dramatic line under the need for rapid human carbon emission reductions now.

For the near-term, years to decades, let us hope that Archer is correct and there is more time for the slow-moving human system to respond to the rather dangerous changes we’re already causing to our climate.

Links:

http://www.realclimate.org/

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/09/27/501221/arctic-methane-release-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it/#comment-494331

http://geosci.uchicago.edu/people/archer.shtml

http://www.skepticalscience.com/arctic-methane-outgassing-e-siberian-shelf-part2.html

 

Barrow Data Shows Large Methane Pulse: Erroneous Reading or Reason For Concern?

Over the past few days, observations of anomalously high methane readings have been coming in from Barrow Alaska. These four reading show a jump of ground level methane concentration at Barrow to 2090-2140 parts per billion (ppb). This is a massive increase over previous measurements of around 1890 ppb. You can see these readings in the graph above in the form of four orange dots in the far upper right hand of the graph.

Barrow is just one reporting station around the Arctic. So, in order to validate any large pulse in methane, we would have to see high readings around the Arctic. As yet, this doesn’t appear to be happening.

In addition, sometimes methane data gets corrupted by bad sensors or faulty process. The result can be anomalously high readings. This has happened before and there is good reason to suspect that these high readings could be caused by a failure of the methane monitoring process.

All that said, this year has seen a number of very strong global warming signals in the Arctic. We’ve seen record warmth over much of the region. We’ve seen record sea ice melt and a trend that shows a potential for ice free Arctic seas within ten years. And we’ve seen an immense increase in melt over the Greenland ice sheet. The sea ice melt is particularly troubling because it is occurring in weather conditions that should not be conducive for melt. And what this points to is a lot of latent heat in the Arctic doing the melting.

So given this context, it would be very unwise to ignore an anomalously high set of methane readings at Barrow. The reason is that heat can destabilize frozen sea bed or tundra methane and result in large pulses of methane hitting the atmosphere. These pulses can contribute large volumes of methane that can dramatically increase atmospheric concentrations. In addition, the over-all trend in the satellite record over the last ten years is for increasing pulses of methane emitted from the Arctic from September to January. Each year, the methane signal has been stronger, so this trend is also cause for concern.

It is still likely that these numbers are the result of error or faulty equipment. But there is a small but not insignificant possibility, perhaps a 20 or 30 percent chance, that this pulse showing up in the Barrow data is real. The fact that four observations are now showing anomalously high readings and that these readings are continuing to rise is serious cause for concern and needs close monitoring.

A large methane pulse in the Arctic this year would be a terrible result. It would add an amplifying global warming feedback to the already strong feedback of sea ice loss and loss of Greenland reflectivity. It would also show that the Arctic environment and the methane stores there are far more sensitive to temperature changes than most scientists had expected. So these observations at Barrow are serious cause for concern.

UPDATE:

I got a response from Andy Crotwell a NOAA scientist specializing in greenhouse gas emissions. He notes that the wind on the day these samples were taken was likely from a developed area where methane readings would have been higher. So he’s pretty sure these are not representative of the Arctic environment and will be listed as outliers in the data.

Links:

http://www.savethearctic.org/

Satellite Data Compiled By University of Maryland Shows Amplifying Arctic Methane Release

Climate scientists have long been concerned that rising temperatures in the Arctic, brought about by human caused global warming, could enhance the release of Arctic methane. The methane is stored on the sea bed in the form of methane hydrates, a form of frozen methane that is very unstable. Methane is also locked up in decayed biological matter on the tundras surrounding the Arctic or in the submerged tundra of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

The volumes of carbon-based methane stored in this way are large. Larger, in fact, than all the carbon released by humans through the burning of fossil fuels since the industrial age began. In addition, methane provides a powerful kick to the climate system. Over the course of a hundred years it traps 20 times more heat than CO2, before turning into CO2 and adding even more insult to injury. So even a relatively small fraction of this methane making its way into the atmosphere can have a very significant impact.

The concern of some scientists is that the initial warming caused by human emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses will result in a forcing powerful enough to unlock this methane. To unlock it in high enough volumes that it creates a kind of runaway feedback loop (see Amplifying Feedbacks).

Unfortunately, research in this very new field does indicate increasing releases of methane from the Arctic. Research conducted last year found very large plumes of methane bubbling up from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Many have cautioned that we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from these early indications, despite the fact that previous observations found methane plumes measuring about 10 meters across, while later observations found methane plumes in the same region measuring more than 1 kilometer across.

Now, satellite data compiled by the University of Maryland provides observations of methane release from space. The Atmospheric Infrared Sensor (AIRS) is aboard NASA’s AQUA satellite and has provided a record of increasing methane release over the Arctic since 2003. You can view a slide-show of 2003 through March of this year below:

The months when methane release tends to pulse higher is from October through February, with the most intense pulses occurring in January. Just look at these two images. The first is from January of 2003, the other from January of this year:

Image

Image

As you have probably noticed, there is a striking difference between the methane concentration in the January, 2003 image and that in the January, 2012 image. And based on the trend established in the period shown, we can clearly see we have an amplifying methane release over the past nine years.

When added to observations of amplifying methane release from the seabed, a proliferation of melt ponds over the Arctic tundra releasing high levels of methane, a general melting of the Arctic tundra resulting in the release of methane from decaying material there, and now this series of satellite observations, it appears that we have solid evidence of an amplifying methane pulse in the Arctic. And this is cause for serious concern because it is a powerful feedback to the already strong climate forcing of human greenhouse gas emissions.

Links:

http://asl.umbc.edu/pub/yurganov/methane/MAPS/NH/

http://aqua.nasa.gov/science/images_data.php

http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2012/05/satellite-data-video-shows-methane-escape-in-arctic/

Numerous Wildfires Still Raging Across American West, Greek Island Engulfed, Russian Blazes Smolder

In California, Idaho and Washington, large regions were still under threat of massive fires today.

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Across California, more than a dozen fires blazed forcing thousands to evacuate and threatening many homes. One northern California fire near the towns of Manton, Shingleton and Viola threatened more than 3,500 homes spread across a ridge near the blaze. In total more than 350,000 acres still burned across the state.

In Idaho, a fire on Trinity Ridge swelled to more than 15 square miles posing a major problem for the more than 1,000 firefighters currently battling the blaze. Hot temperatures and dry conditions were factors that added to the fire’s intensity. In Featherville, more than 350 homes were evacuated as smoke from a nearby blaze encroached on the community there.

Large fires continued to burn through central Washington as lightning strikes threatened firefighters’ efforts to contain blazes there. Fires in the Cascade range were mostly contained after having destroyed nearly 300 structures over the past week.

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Overseas, the Greek island of Chios suffered a major fire today. The blaze began early Saturday morning and has since swelled to a 16,000 acre inferno. Nearly 400 firefighters and 50 vehicles are currently involved in fighting the blaze. The Aegean island has lost the majority of its bee hives and a significant portion of its crops to the fire. Smoke from the blaze was visible 230 miles away in Crete.

In Siberia, the hottest temperatures in 170 years continued to contribute to sporadic blazes there.

Current estimates are that fires over Russia may rival the epic spree of fires that took place in 2010. However, since most fires have occurred in Siberia, these blazes appear to have resulted in less loss of life and property damage than that tragic year.

Furthermore, and somewhat off topic, it has been very difficult to find summer estimates for methane release in the Siberian tundra and East Siberian Arctic Shelf. We’re currently involved in researching the matter and hope to bring you more information shortly.

(Photo Credits: NASA)

 

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